|By Zach Patterson||Wednesday, 22 Jul 2009|
Under Control is a new review feature that will highlight both obscure and traditional controllers from all generations. Controllers can greatly affect the enjoyment of specific games on a system, and the interface between hardware and software has always been of great interest to me. With the current generation of game systems such as the Wii’s motion sensing remote, the PS3′s Sixaxis tilt control, and the 360′s upcoming Project Natal, the controller hardware’s importance to the system and its software has become even more important. Looking back a few generations, however, perhaps one of the more intriguing controllers of the Playstation 1 era was the specialized racing game neGcon controller.
Just simply looking at the neGcon, it stands out as a very strange looking controller. It resembles some sort of knockoff SNES controller with a fat rotating center. The design is childish, almost designed more like a kids toy, but it does have a certain charm and defining look to it. Oddly, the buttons share nothing in common with the Playstation, as there is only one L and one R button, and the traditional X, Square, Circle, Triangle buttons instead are I, II, A, and B. There’s no select button, no rumble (as it was not a standard on the system when this was created), and no traditional analog sticks. There’s a nice fat d-pad with rounded up edges that feels natural and smooth. However, the d-pad is very rarely used on this when the controller is used appropriately. Why, you ask? Well, the controllers main feature is that aforementioned fat rotating center.
As you may be able to guess from the above pictures, the controller is actually two rotating shafts connected together at the center. When playing a game the utilizes this controller, you twist it as if you are wringing water from a washcloth. What the picture above slightly inaccurately represents is that the controller actually snaps back to the idle position whenever you turn it. This gives the controller the illusion of steering when using it, and this was in fact the very first analog controller for the Playstation. making it’s turning movements very precise. Of course, without holding the controller and playing a game with it, it’s pretty difficult to imagine. In fact, even when using the neGcon for the first time, it’s rather difficult to understand how it not resembling a steering wheel makes it good for racing games. How it works is that when the right side is pulled down toward you, it will turn your vehicle left, and when you twist the left side toward you, it moves your vehicle right. While this isn’t the best example, this Youtube video shows the controller in motion as Wipeout XL is played:
As you can see in the video, the twisting motion actually leads to very precise on screen movements, and factoring in that the I, II, and L buttons were also analog, this leads to a fantastic controller for racing games that require precision in letting off the gas ever so slightly and exact turns to navigate. And as difficult as it is to describe how it works, it actually is fairly intuitive. In my experience, most people I’ve seen use it for the first time ended up getting the hang of it within the course of one race.
While the controller is definitely my racing controller of choice, it’s not without it’s flaws. The main problem is also one of its assets, and that is the deep, recessed I and II buttons. If you examine the pictures closely above, you can see that the I and II buttons are extremely long, the reasoning being that they are analog buttons and you can ease off the gas or tap the breaks without fully pressing the button. unfortunately, the buttons are just too deep. You literally have to jam your thumb down as hard as you can into the button in order to fully depress it, which leads to slight thumb soreness over time. If you don’t, there are several instances in which you’ll notice your vehicle not going full speed, which is irritating.
Additionally, if you need to press another button, the deep basin of the I and II buttons make it a difficult proposition. It’s hard to press another button cleanly without your finger coming off the accelerator button, and it’s very easy to accidentally press an adjacent button while holding down one of those two buttons. I’ve actually found that I prefer the digital A and B buttons instead, as they are short, small, responsive, and are much less likely to erroneously be depressed.
Also, while it doesn’t cause too many problems, the shoulder L and R buttons are too long and clicky. They would work slightly better by being shorter and having better response time. Also, having only one be analog and the other not is a bit strange, especially for games that have left and right airbrakes, like Wipeout.
That being said, however, this is controller is essentially like having an easy portable steering wheel for nearly all popular Playstation 1 and selected Playstation 2 racing games. Additionally, it works very well on PC with a PSX->PC USB adapter and can be used on a variety of games on PC as well. My personal experience with the controller has been almost entirely with the Wipeout series, specifically Wipeout XL, but also the sequels Wipeout 3 and Wipeout Fusion. The Wipeout series, regardless of your familiarity with it or not, feels like it was made with this controller in mind. The ships move so naturally and responsively with the neGcon that it’s clear that the developers were big fans of the controller. Other series such as Ridge Racer, Gran Turismo, Ace Combat, Rollcage, Colin McRae Rally, and Destruction Derby also work well with the controller. The Ridge Racer series in particular works quite well, seeing as it is a Namco developed title and the neGcon is a Namco piece of hardware. The series trademark arcade-y controls are given a nearly arcade type steering wheel control with the neGcon, leading to a much-improved experience as opposed to just using the traditional digital pad (or the analog sticks in the later Ridge Racer games).
The controller has become a bit of a collectors item, but can still be found on the secondary market to 15-30 dollars. The controller’s twisting function does have a tendency to wear down over use, thus making it looser and decreasing its accuracy, but it is still worth it for fans of PS1/PS2/PC racing games. Unfortunately, if you are the type of gamer who cannot get into racing titles, this controller is of little use to you. It can be used in other games that only used the buttons provided on the neGcon, but it provides no advantage, and in many cases, is a much poorer substitute than the basic Playstation controller. There are a few exceptions, such as the excellent Tempest remake, Tempest X3, or the Ace Combat series, but this is clearly made for racing games.
Though it is a limited use controller and does have some foibles, this is a controller that has many advantages. It’s a small portable steering wheel, it works with most of the finest Playstation racing games and has compatibility with many Playstation 2 and PC games, and it is a game that enhances the quality of play on nearly every racing game it is used on. I would say I’ve developed a certain fondness for this controller over the years, and in reviewing some compatible games with the neGcon for this review, I found myself drawn back into 10+ year old games and enjoying them like a teenager again due to the controller. However, I am well aware it is now a niche controller item and the most recent games to utilize it are the quite old Ridge Racer V and Wipeout Fusion for PS2. Despite that, it’s a great controller for what it excels at, and it sports a fun and intriguing design.